San Francisco Symphony delivers Mahler from the top drawer

San Francisco orchestra's Fifth Symphony was expertly judged and superbly delivered

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 5:47am

San Francisco Symphony
Concert Hall, HK Cultural Centre
November 8 and 9

The two programmes, performed as part of the San Francisco Symphony's six-city Asian tour, were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's music director since 1995.

The full menu comprised a snorter of a piano concerto, two problematic symphonies and three approachable curtain-raisers by American composers: John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a bravura romp with minimalism; Lou Harrison's The Family of the Court, a throwback to the stasis of ancient Japanese gagaku music; and Henry Cowell's Music 1957, an exercise in Hoedown-meets-Hubei, taking in a quick jam with Balinese gamelan along the way.

The fundamental challenge of both Rachmaninov's Second Symphony and Mahler's Fifth Symphony is that they use too many notes to deliver their message, necessitating strategies to oil their clunky construction and make time glide by. Thursday's performance of the Rachmaninov work lacked such momentum, sounding altogether more played through than thought through.

Tilson Thomas' account of Mahler's voluble five-movement symphony, however, was out of a different drawer. Between the work's serial climaxes lie lengthy, repetitive blocks that drag under most batons.

Conducting from memory, Tilson Thomas turned these areas of potential downtime into sensitive prime time, highlighting details with impressive clarity and applying intelligently modulated dynamics and speeds to clinch the mood of the moment. Even with Mahler's meticulous markings in the score, hitting those climaxes isn't a given. Here they were not only expertly judged but also superbly delivered by a calorific brass section.

Yuja Wang's performance of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto was an absolute cracker. Her electrifying technique was put at the service of unusually rich characterisations, from the subtlest colours in the first movement's opening bars, for example, to its towering cadenza that brilliantly fused ferocity and clarity with other-worldliness.

Similarly intriguing was the unlikely daintiness she somehow injected into the third movement's ponderous swagger. There was a seamless coherence to everything she did; not a single note fed off histrionics. If it gets any better than this, I want to be there when it happens.